Poor English often a bane Posted: 17 June 2010; Category: National SINGAPORE employers usually rely on middleman agencies to recruit, vet and send workers here from source countries.

Agents would typically attest to the quality of their foreign workers, guaranteeing that they have been tested and found to have a basic grasp of English.

So when food and beverage industry veteran Cheong Hai Poh went to China to hire workers in 1997, he found out just what being conversant in English meant.

Every candidate he interviewed reeled off the same lines in English: 'My name is xxx. I come from Hubei province. I like football.'

If he asked a question, there would be a confused pause. Then the candidate would repeat his memorised lines wholesale. These workers had no grasp of English. They had learnt - or been made to learn - a bare minimum designed to get them into Singapore.

According to Mr Cheong, who is now executive assistant manager of Conrad Centennial Hotel, the problem is not that Singapore has too many foreign workers but that it is getting the wrong kind.

One major reason, he argues, is the restrictions on the places from which industries can recruit.

The list differs from sector to sector. For the service sector, work permit holders can come only from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

Of these, only those from Malaysia and China come in droves. As time goes by, 'the cream is wiped off', says Mr Cheong. English-speaking countries like the Philippines, he maintains, could yield better-quality workers.

His views were rebutted by the Ministry of Manpower. Ms Jacqueline Poh, divisional director of workplace policy and strategy, recalls that the suggestion was 'If you have skills, why restrict which countries you come from?'. Such workers can come in on the S-Pass, she points out.

However, S-Pass holders must have certain tertiary educational qualifications. 'A chef does not need to be a university graduate,' Mr Cheong tells Insight.

From the Government's point of view, there is a danger in granting work permits to all and sundry. The concern is social balance: The make-up of Singapore society should not be altered by the import of foreign workers.

Other members of the working group, like those from construction, also cited the possibility of tensions between large groups of foreign workers of different nationalities living in close quarters.

'Eventually, we have to accept that it cannot be driven only by economic considerations,' says Mrs Josephine Teo, a labour MP and co-chair of the ESC working group. 'There is always this concern about opening our doors too wide at the work permit level because if you say 'yes' to F&B, then who's next?'

The compromise that emerged in the working group's recommendations was an emphasis on skilled foreign workers and quality certification.